Robert Pinsky

By Cusac, Anne-Marie | The Progressive, May 1999 | Go to article overview

Robert Pinsky


Cusac, Anne-Marie, The Progressive


`I don't think of myself as tremendously public," says the most publicly visible U.S. Poet Laureate in the thirteen-year history of that position. "I have spent most of my life in a room like this one, in a house with my kids." We are sitting in Robert Pinsky's large attic study, drinking South African Rooibois tea while blue jays scream in the yard. A saxophone is propped on a stand near one wall.

Robert Pinsky is the author of five books of poetry, most recently, The Figured Wheel (Noonday Press), which brings together his four previous books along with new poems. He has translated the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, and his 1994 translation of Dante's Inferno (Noonday Press) put that 600-year-old poem on bestseller lists. He has also written three books of criticism as well as The Sounds of Poetry (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which describes the sensual and intellectual pleasures that sound gives to the experience of reading poems. Known as a teacher whose enthusiasm is contagious, he is a professor in the Creative Writing Program at Boston University

Although he has been a private man for most of his life, Pinsky's writings repeatedly consider the civic responsibilities of poetry and the poet. "We still face the classic question or challenge of American poetry: What is, or would be, a democratic poetry?" he asks in an essay published in his book Poetry and the Worm (Ecco Press). And he shares with Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Frank O'Hara a concern with representing, celebrating, and criticizing a vibrant, complicated nation.

Much of Pinsky's widespread public recognition is due to his regular appearances on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, where he reads and explicates poems that also often function as cultural commentaries. In January, for instance, in response to the snarled Senate debate on procedures for the trial of Bill Clinton, Pinsky read a nonsense poem by Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland.

But Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project has also received attention, earning him such media nicknames as "The People's Poet" and "Poetry's Preacher." The project collects video and audio recordings of Americans reading aloud the poems they love and talking about why they love them.

The project now includes favorite poem readings around the country, an extensive web site featuring videos and sound recordings of the readings at www.favoritepoem.org, and plans for a Norton anthology and a video archive.

Pinsky motions me over to his computer and pulls up the web site. He clicks on a small photograph of a woman in a driver's cap and sunglasses--Bridget Stearns, from Ketchikan, Alaska, one of the first people recorded as part of the project.

"Here in southeast Alaska, the winters are hard. And it's not unheard of for people to fall into a depression," says Stearns. "Last winter, it was my turn. I think this poem spoke to me because its theme is isolation, and one feature of depression is just that. You feel cut off from other people. You can see them out there mouthing words at you, but it's like they're through frosted glass.... But it has a little bit of a tone of defiance and bravery and a chirpiness that I liked."

We listen as she reads the Stevie Smith poem "Not Waving but Drowning."

   Nobody heard him, the dead man,
   But still he lay moaning:
   I was much further out than you thought

   And not waving but drowning.
   Poor chap, he always loved larking
   And now he's dead
   It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,

   They said.
   Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
   (Still the dead one lay moaning)
   I was much too far out all my life
   And not waving but drowning.

Stearns says that she shared the poem with friends in an effort to feel a connection with other humans. "It encouraged me to keep thrashing and to keep waving," she concludes. …

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